My story begins on Saturday, October 20th, when I happened to surf over to The End Records’s website (I think to find information on the new album from Anneke van Giersbergen) and saw this: “ESTRADASPHERE to perform West Coast dates with Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls)”. What?!? Both acts are easily in my current top-20 list of favorite bands, but more importantly, they’re probably both in my top-5 list of favorite live bands. And they’re playing TOGETHER?!? Never in a million years would I have guessed the two bands would have anything to do with each other; I can’t imagine too many other people have them both in the top 25 on their last.fm profile. I’ve been to five concerts from each of them: Estradasphere from 2001, watching them press on through (self-induced?) obscurity, and the Dresden Dolls from 2004, watching them rise from the bottom of a 4-band bill topped by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, to a headlining band selling out the 1400-capacity Vic Theater. Seeing them both together would be like seeing Iron Maiden playing with Nick Cave, or opening Christmas presents while riding the Tilt-a-Whirl, or winning a spelling bee while having sex: crazy and unexpected, but so awesome!
Ok, Neil, settle down for a second and look at the details: as far as I can tell, Estradasphere will both play a set of their own, and then act as the backing band for Amanda. They’re only doing four shows, three in Estradasphere’s home/studio in Seattle, and one in a small restaurant/club in Portland a week from now. Conveniently, you have family in Portland that you can stay with (and your brother might even want to go to the show too). And it’s on a Sunday, so you’ll only have to take one day off work. Ok, airfare. $300? Damn, that’s a lot. Can I really justify that to myself?
I realized that it could only be a one-day trip (I had to stay in Chicago on Friday and Saturday to see Therion and Nightwish concerts), and then I also checked out some of Amanda Palmer’s solo songs, and wasn’t especially impressed. So that made me pull back a bit. But in the end, some good advice friends and skilled attempts to justify it to myself (“It’s been a while since you’ve traveled to see a show”, “People pay that kind of money all the time to far crappier bands in far crappier places”, etc.) made me pull the trigger. I bought three tickets: $300 for the flight, and two $12 tickets to the show for me and my brother.
The ironic thing is that I sometimes justify all the time I spend searching through obscure music by calling it a time-is-money tradeoff: rather than simply liking what radio wants me to like, and then paying out the nose for the privilege of seeing those celebrities perform, I find the unpopular stuff that’s just as good (and usually better) than anything mainstream, and then I can see it performed up close and personal for hardly any money at all. Well, I’d still be seeing these guys close, but the money-saving part of the plan completely backfired in this case!
It was an over-21, late-starting show: 11:30pm in Chicago time, which is what I was operating on, especially after catching less than five hours of sleep between the Nightwish show and my flight out in the morning. Eskimo & Sons was a late addition as an opening band. They played a chiming form of indie-rock with a piercing girl singer, coming off a bit like a less-layered Sufjan Stevens. Ok, but nothing that got me too excited. But when Amanda stepped onstage (wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt) to introduce Estradasphere, I woke right up.
Estradasphere’s set seemed like a perfectly orchestrated, compressed overview of everything they’re about; being an opening band is relatively rare for them, so it was probably a good way to advertise themselves to people who didn’t know them (even though there weren’t more than 70-80 people in the place to advertise to). We got the gypsy-metal (“Smuggled Mutation”), video-game music (Zelda), the hilarious “Rainbows & Unicorns”, some covers, including a religious number and “The Rainbow Connection” (did they know the Dresden Dolls have done this too?), teases (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and “Sweet Child o’ Mine”‘s guitar solo played on violin), and even an old one (the title track from ‘Buck Fever’). The last time I saw them they played the entire ‘Palace of Mirrors’ album, which was great, but it was nice to see them back to mixing it up again. And they pulled it all off even though they were missing their shamisen/guitar player. They must have also been missing a distortion pedal; that, or they just made a conscious decision to un-metal all the metal guitar parts. Either way, it made for a very cool version of “The Return”, which was played with a completely different arrangement from its normal tech-metal version. Man, I love seeing Estradasphere so much that them alone would have almost been worth the $300. The rest of the crowd seemed to dig it too.
Then after a break, the five Estradaspherians reappeared and began to play the Dresden Dolls’ “Missed Me”. Eventually Amanda came out, now all costumed and made up, to complete a piano-free version of the song. One of my worries was that I would travel all the way to Portland and the bands would just do half-assed, short, unfocused sets, but clearly they had thought this out and were making a serious show of it. That was the only Dolls song, so then the rest of the set was made of songs from Amanda’s upcoming solo album, and covers: two cabaret numbers from Brecht, one from Madonna, and the second G’n’R reference of the night: “Patience” (complete with whistling and mandolin solo from Timb!) The solo songs, which I had been a bit apprehensive about, sounded instantly familiar and excellent to me, even though I had only heard them once before. Silly me for being a doubter. Especially “Astronaut” and “Blake Says” stood out to me. For the latter, Amanda disappeared from the stage, only to reappear in black-and-white on the projector screen when the band started playing. After looking around for a while, the audience found her sitting and singing at the bar in the corner of the room. She ordered a drink and then slowly made her way back across the room, with the camera following her the whole time. It was a very cool concept, watching a music video that was being performed live. She repeated the trick a couple more times, once walking across the top of a bar, and another time sitting between two generous audience members on a bench. Definitely not something you see every day at a concert.
The mix of the two acts was perfect, although Estradsphere is so darn good that they’d probably sound great backing anyone from Manilow to Mudvayne. Amanda’s voice was the best that I’ve heard it in a while. And watching the fun they had interacting, it suddenly made perfect sense that the two found each other. They both have a broad knowledge and interest in music, they both can convincingly pull off serious and silly in the same set, and most importantly, they both have the increasingly rare skill-set that makes truly great live musicians: the ability and desire to change up their songs, improvise, and make it always feel fresh and alive. Juxtaposed against the orchestral metal shows I had seen the nights before, where everything is locked to a click-track and half the music is flown in from a computer, this aspect really jumped out at me. It was great to once again see music with room to breathe.
At one point Amanda apologized for not doing anything to promote the concert, but I have to imagine it was somewhat intentional. Clearly she still has the heart of a pretentious artist (meant in the best possible way!), but I’m sure it’s rather difficult to express that side of yourself once you’ve become famous and are normally playing in sold out, corporate venues. So this was a good chance to slum it for a bit, and us few fanboys and girls who check the Internet were lucky enough to not just see it, but participate.
So yeah, it was totally worth the money. Even if they do follow through with their claim to do a proper tour in the spring. It would probably be hard to make those shows into such a close-up experience, though I wouldn’t mind if they tried. I’m pretty sure I’ll never get tired of seeing either of them, so I’ll take as many chances as I can get to see them both together. Maybe they’ll even bring Iron Maiden with them next time.